A Sermon by the Rev. Susan Wyper
March 1, 2020
Saint Luke’s Parish, Darien
Genesis 2: 15-17, 3: 1-7
Matthew 4: 1-11
Now I become myself.
It’s taken time, many years and places.
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people’s faces…. 1
Lord, you created us in your image. Help us to wear the face that reflects your face. In Christ’s name we pray, Amen.
What a difference a week makes!
A week ago the stock market was chugging along, doing its thing, up and down, but mostly up, a steady rope-tow wending its way up an economic mountain. Today the market’s seven-day losing streak looks like a black diamond ski run going down, fast.
A week ago the corona virus seemed a distant concern, something happening on a faraway shore. Today it’s in our back yard and we are considering crisis plans and navigating new and unchartered territory.
A week ago, Jesus was on top of the world, surrounded by his best buds Peter, James and John, visited by his bygone heroes Moses and Elijah. Like a kid on the playground he was King of the Mountain, master of the Universe, transfigured into blazing white. Today he’s friendless and alone in the desert, famished and exhausted, heckled and harangued.
What a difference a week makes. If we wonder why the Bible is considered the Living Word, this week shows us. It is because the stories of scripture are our stories, their rhythm our rhythm. Jesus knows how life can change over night. Jesus knows what it’s like to be tempted, whether to power and fame, or to anxiety and fear.
* * *
On the walls of the Frick Museum in New York City, that perfectly sized museum for a morning cup of history, beauty and art, hangs Duccio di Buoninsegna’s Temptation of Christ on the Mountain. It is one of a series of panels illustrating the life of Christ that Duccio painted as part of a huge double-sided altarpiece commissioned for the Cathedral in Siena. The work dates from the early 1300’s.
In it Christ is standing feet splayed but secure on a rock below which, in miniature are all the kingdoms of the world, looking a lot like the kingdoms of the 1300’s. He is banishing the devil with an arm outstretched and a hand that is not unlike Michaelangelo’s later Creation of Adam. Satan is a dark swath of black and grey, so monochromatic so as to make his features hard to see; he appears as thin and famished as Jesus, almost his shadow self. But his feet, claw and bird like find no purchase, no grounding, no hold.
What struck me most when I first saw this painting – with an old Bible study group as it happened – was how legitimately tempted Jesus appeared. He looks like he was actually considering the devil’s proposition, like a little more “C’mon, I dare you,” might have just lured him over the edge.
When we read the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, as we do each year at this time, it is easy to think that overcoming temptation was not a big deal for Jesus. He is God after all. How hard can it be to resist a little bread when you’re God? A little power when you are all powerful, a little fame when you are He who will draw all nations to Himself? But Jesus was also fully man, fully you and fully me, fully susceptible to the same seductions we are: a wee lie here, a short-cut there, a toot my own horn everywhere!
We’re told in Hebrews that Jesus was tempted in every way that we are yet did not sin. (Hebrews 4:15) What a powerful model that is – so how did he manage it? He managed it by knowing who he was. And by knowing who God is. And that is the real work of Lent.
This purple wilderness season invites us to learn more about who we are and who God is. I hope you’ll take advantage of Pathways and other offerings (Morning Prayer, Wednesday Eucharist, Friday Way of the Cross) to do just that. One of my favorite parts of the week is teaching our littlest ones Bible stories, because they have no trouble making those stories their own. May we be as children this season. May we read and hear the stories of God so that we might read (and write) our own stories by God’s holy light.
Because if we don’t know, for example, that God brought the Israelites out from slavery in Egypt into the land of milk and honey, we might not look to Him to guide you out of a dead end job or away from addictive behaviors. If we don’t know that the Lord answered Sarah even in her old age, we might give up on expecting new life to spring from barren ground. If we don’t know that Jesus was scorned and rejected, if we don’t know he was tempted as we are, if we don’t know that most beautiful two word sentence in the whole Bible, Jesus wept, we won’t know that he is with us in every trial, knows our every sorrow, shares our every tear. If we don’t know finally the story of Christ’s death and resurrection, the details of the women and what they saw, the race between John and James to the empty tomb, the whole story in its agony and its ecstasy we won’t look for the same movements in our own lives – movements from death to life, darkness to light, sorrow to joy, hate to love.
* * *
In Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABCs by one of my go-to authors, Frederick Buechner, the entry under the letter L for Lent, reads as follows:
In many cultures there is an ancient custom of giving a tenth of each year’s income to some holy use. For Christians, to observe the forty days of Lent is to do the same thing with roughly a tenth of each year’s days…Jesus went off alone into the wilderness where he spent forty days asking himself the question what it meant to be Jesus. During Lent, Christians are supposed to ask one way or another what it means to be themselves.
Buechner then posits some question like
If you had to bet everything you have on whether there is a God or whether there isn’t, which side would get your money and why?
When you look at your face in the mirror, what do you see in it that you most like and what do you see in it that you most deplore?
If you had only one last message to leave to the handful of people who are most important to you, what would it be in twenty-five words or less? And
Of all the things you have done in your life, which is the one you would most like to undo? Which is the one that makes you happiest to remember?
To hear yourself try to answer questions like these, Buechner writes, is to begin to hear something not only of who you are but of both what you are becoming and what you are failing to become. It can be a pretty depressing business all in all, he continues, but if sack-cloth and ashes are at the start of it, something like Easter may be at the end.2
Easter IS at the end of it. God promises that. And I for one want to be ready. Ready to stand firmly on the rock of faith, feet splayed, grounded in God’s love. Ready for whatever this week holds, or next week. And now, because it’s not fair to ask questions and not give answers, here for you, dear ones of Saint Luke’s, here are my 25 words:
I love you. I want you to be best you you can be. Trust the world, trust God. Be kind. Laugh. Forgive. Believe. Play.
1 May Sarton, Now I Become Myself
2 Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking